November 18, 2013
Elizabeth Warren (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Elizabeth Warren (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

If Elizabeth Warren is emerging as a kind of spokeswoman for the new economic populism that many Democratic activists want the party to embrace heading into 2014 and 2016, this speech that Warren is currently delivering on the floor of the Senate suggests the push to expand Social Security could become a key issue in the argument over the Democratic Party of the future.

In remarks Warren just began delivering, she strongly endorsed the push to boost Social Security benefits — in keeping with Senator Tom Harkin’s proposal to do the same — and condemned the “Chained CPI” that liberals fear Dems will embrace in strong terms. From the prepared remarks:

“The most recent discussion about cutting benefits has focused on something called the Chained-CPI. Supporters of the chained CPI say that it’s a more accurate way of measuring cost of living increases for seniors. That statement is simply not true. Chained CPI falls short of the actual increases in costs that seniors face, pure and simple.  Chained CPI?  It’s just a fancy way of saying cut benefits.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a measure of the impact of inflation on seniors. It’s called the CPI-E, and, if we adopted it today, it would generally increase benefits for our retirees — not cut them.

“Social Security isn’t the answer to all of our retirement problems.  We need to find ways to tackle the financial squeeze that is crushing our families.  We need to help families start saving again.  We need to make sure that more workers have access to better pensions.  But in the meantime – so long as these problems continue to exist and so long as we are in the midst of a real and growing retirement crisis – a crisis that is shaking the foundations of what was once a vibrant and secure middle class – the absolute last thing we should be doing is talking about cutting back on Social Security.

“The absolute last thing we should do in 2013 – at the very moment that Social Security has become the principal lifeline for millions of our seniors — is allow the program to begin to be dismantled inch by inch.

“Over the past generation, working families have been hacked at, chipped, and hammered.  If we want a real middle class — a middle class that continues to serve as the backbone of our country — then we must take the retirement crisis seriously.  Seniors have worked their entire lives and have paid into the system, but right now, more people than ever are on the edge of financial disaster once they retire — and the numbers continue to get worse.

“That is why we should be talking about expanding Social Security benefits — not cutting them. Senator Harkin from Iowa, Senator Begich from Alaska, Senator Sanders from Vermont, and others have been pushing hard in that direction.  Social Security is incredibly effective, it is incredibly popular, and the calls for strengthening it are growing louder every day.”

As Noam Scheiber detailed in his big cover story on why Warren is a threat to Hillary Clinton in 2016, many of the issues that Warren has been championing for years now — Wall Street accountability and oversight of the big banks; stagnating middle class wages; the need for financial reforms designed to address the ways the economy is rigged in favor of the financial sector and against working Americans — are emerging as central to a larger argument over what the Democratic Party should stand for and who it really represents.

By planting a flag on the need to expand Social Security, Warren may have just added this issue to the pantheon of preoccupations that are driving those who want to see the party embrace a more economically populist posture going forward. Liberal bloggers such as Atrios and liberal groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, have been pushing for a Social Security expansion, arguing that Democratic priorities should be centered on the idea that declining pensions and wages (and savings) are undermining retirement security, and that the party should above all stand against undermining the social insurance system.

The focus on Warren’s championing of these issues has led to a lot of chatter to the effect that she will run in 2016 and mount a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton in the process. But she has adamantly denied any plans to run, and at any rate, the real story here may go beyond the question of whatever presidential ambitious Warren harbors, if any. Her popularity with the Democratic grass roots suggests that they will want to see these issues addressed no matter who enters the 2016 Democratic field. Indeed, as Ned Resnikoff notes, liberal groups are pushing her issues not necessarily out of a desire to see her run, but because they want to “demonstrate the popularity of her anti-austerity, pro-financial reform message in the hopes that other Democratic politicians will begin to emulate it.”

Add the push to expand Social Security to that list. With the possibility emerging that entitlement cuts could be on the table in coming budget talks, the existence of a small progressive bloc of Senators, backed by liberal groups, pushing in the other direction could make things more complicated for Democrats, both for those who have an eye on 2016 and for those who don’t.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.